Community members gather for a Little Town Poets Society meeting. (Photo courtesy of Cheyanne Leonardo)

Growing up in Scott County, Tennessee, Cheyanne Leonardo’s passion for poetry and the arts made her feel like a bit of an outsider.

“It’s hard growing up and feeling different, feeling like no one is interested in the same things as you are … I definitely felt like a weirdo. But I kind of liked it, in a way, and I tried to make it my super power.”

Cheyanne Leonardo stands in the grass, blowing on a dandelion puff so that the seeds scatter. She has long dark hair and wears a green dress.
“Little Town Poet” Cheyanne Leonardo. (Photo courtesy of Leonardo)

Today, her poetry – and gift for sharing it with others – has become just that. In the past three years, Cheyanne has published three poetry collections, cultivated a thriving group of local poets, launched a local poetry anthology that’s received more than 100 submissions, and assumed a leadership role in a recently formed nonprofit working to advance arts in the community.

Though she is now doing what she considers her life’s work, it happened by accident.

Only three years ago, Cheyanne was living in Stuttgart, Germany, at the tail end of a decade-long odyssey of boarding school, graduate school, traveling, and living abroad, which she started when she first left home at fourteen. Fluent in French and German after extensive travel in Europe and a graduate degree in modern language and literature, she taught English for two years before the Covid pandemic hit Germany. In the face of so much uncertainty, homesickness — and a chance at a love she’d left behind — brought her home.

“If I’m perfectly honest, the reason that I came home was because I’m a romantic. I was waiting for the right time to be with someone here in our hometown,” she said. “When I was faced with the possibility of the imminent death of all my loved ones, I thought, okay.”

So she moved home, rented a small apartment behind her old childhood dance studio, and began working as a barista. She wrote poems to process her feelings about her time abroad, her journey home, and everything in between. Those poems eventually became the foundation for her debut poetry collection, More Than Metaphor, published in the summer of 2021.

Birth of the Little Town Poets Society

What began as a personal exploration of her feelings became a way to connect with her community more deeply than she ever had before. Surprised by how much people connected with her work, and humbled by the encouragement she received from friends, family, and strangers while selling her work at the coffee shop, she decided to start a free weekly poetry class.

“So, I am starting a club. And everyone is invited,” she wrote on Facebook. “The LITTLE TOWN POETS SOCIETY will be a place for YOU – to join me in creating poetry and art of your very own.”

Seven people of various ages and genders gather in a coffeeshop to discuss poetry.
Little Town Poets Society meetings, like the one pictured above, started as weekly free poetry classes taught by Leonardo.

Despite early fears that no one would show up or care, eleven people – ranging from teens to seniors in their seventies – showed up to Little Town Poets Society’s first meeting at the coffee shop. And they’ve continued to show up since, sharing their work, forming unexpected friendships, and opening up about their feelings.

“More than once, a grown man has cried at Poets Society, which I feel is progress,” she said.

The group has been transformative for Whitney Swain. “The little community that [Cheyanne] has created has opened a world of possibilities that I didn’t know would exist for me,” said Whitney, who is studying to become a licensed counselor. “She gave me space to find an artistic voice that I did not know I had.”

Four people sit together on two chairs and a couch discussing poetry.
A discussion at the Little Town Poets Society.
Two people stand side-by-side one, one is smiling into the camera while the other looks away. They are both members of the Little Town Poets Society.
Friends made through the Little Town Poets Society. (Photos courtesy of Leonardo)

Weeks after launching Little Town Poets Society in the fall of 2022, a couple of friends and family approached Cheyanne with an idea to start a nonprofit arts organization, a moment she remembers as a “sign that everything was moving in the right direction.”

“When I started out, I was kind of hoping it would evolve into something like that.”

Today, she serves as Director of Literary Arts for that nonprofit — the Appalachian Society of the Arts — which recently hosted its first fundraiser for a Budding Artist scholarship fund and is planning free and low-cost classes in music, photography, acting, and crafting.

Supporting access to the arts and emerging artists from Scott County has been incredibly meaningful for Cheyanne. “I was dissuaded from pursuing [the arts] for so long because they’re “not valuable.” And that’s the exact thing I’m trying to break — this notion that it’s not helpful or doesn’t contribute. Because [with] what I’ve done in the last two years with poetry alone, I’ve seen more of a positive impact in terms of other people’s lives and the world, that I’ve been able to do, than anything else ever.”

The Hometown Poems Project

Her current project, “Hometown Poems,” is an example of that. It’s a local anthology she created for residents of Scott, McCreary, and surrounding counties that will benefit the Appalachian Society of the Arts. She’s received poetry, photo, and drawing submissions from over 100 residents. “The youngest person who submitted is four years old, and the oldest is in his 80s. So we’ve got the whole range of life,” she said.

She’s also writing, with her current work focused on spirituality. “I’m always a romantic. So there’s always love in there as well,” she said. “But I like the idea that everybody has a little piece of the divine in them, whatever their name for that is. And for me, poetry is what gets me in touch with it.”

Personally, Cheyanne is living happily with her partner — the one who inspired her journey home — and their dog and cat. She quit her barista job to write poetry full time and has wholeheartedly embraced her identity as a Little Town Poet. “I hope to continue representing rural places, especially in Appalachia, and inspiring people to represent themselves.”

While she hasn’t ruled out a future odyssey — “there’s part of me that still fantasizes about running away and being alive somewhere else.” — she’s putting down roots for now.

“I really like being here right now … growing up, I felt like, kind of an outcast. So all of a sudden, it’s like I’m really active in the community, and I like it. I feel like I’m making a difference, and that is what matters to me.”

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